HIAS head lobbies to extend ex-Soviets refugee status

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Decrying the "still endemic anti-Semitism" in the former Soviet Union, a top emigre advocate says the U.S. Congress should extend the special refugee status for Jews trying to emigrate.

"But there are some members of Congress who obviously aren't convinced," said Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the agency that administers federal grants for Jewish resettlement.

Under the Lautenberg Amendment that expires this fall, Jews and evangelical Christians in the former Soviet Union qualify more easily than others for refugee status because they're treated as a group with a "credible basis for concern" about persecution.

A handful of Congress members, including Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), are arguing that the 1989 amendment panders to special interests, exaggerates the conditions in the former Soviet Union, and deviates from the standard for refugees worldwide that requires individuals to prove a "well-founded fear of persecution."

Wenick, in fact, won't argue that Jews in the former Soviet Union are suffering more than the estimated 20 to 24 million refugees across the globe. This year, ex-Soviet Jews account for 24,000 of the 90,000 refugees allowed into the United States.

But he said ex-Soviet Jews should still receive special U.S. refugee status because conditions in the former Soviet Union are "highly unstable."

Furthermore, the United States and American Jews have traditionally made a priority of Soviet Jewry, said Wenick during a visit last week to San Francisco.

"We'd be remiss if we didn't," he said.

The Jewish Agency's recent problems within Russia reflect the political turbulence there. Last month, Russia's government suspended the Jewish Agency's operating license and halted a seminar for Jews interested in immigrating to Israel.

Though the disruption doesn't affect immigration to the United States, Wenick considers the broader implications of the action "ominous."

"One has to assume it's connected to the current political trends," he said.

Communists and ultra-nationalists are expected to do well in Russia's upcoming national elections in June. If President Boris Yeltsin loses, his government's relaxed stance toward emigration won't necessarily continue.

And while the government there no longer sanctions anti-Semitism, Wenick said, grassroots hatred for Jews has taken its place.

"The government has lost control of law and order," he said.

To bolster his argument, Wenick downplayed the significance of two recent surveys.

An American Jewish Committee polling of Russians found relatively low levels of hostility toward Jews. Another survey of emigres in New York found that 41 percent named personal safety as their reason for leaving while only 5 percent specifically mentioned anti-Semitism, according to The Jerusalem Post.

"I don't buy the argument people are leaving for solely economic reasons," Wenick said.

He cited the recent congressional testimony of an attorney who immigrated to the United States with her family knowing she never might practice law again because of the years of preparation needed to pass the bar exam here.

"They'd had it with the difficulty of being Jews there," he said.

Named for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the amendment expires Sept. 30. Wenick expects the debate over the Lautenberg Amendment's extension can be kept to a minimum if it's attached to other legislation.

A one-year extension had been added to the State Department authorization bill, which has been vetoed twice by President Bill Clinton for reasons unrelated to immigration.

But even if the extension fails, Wenick believes the 100,000 Jews already in the process of applying for refugee status would probably still be allowed into the United States. He added that nearly all of the Jews who want to immigrate are trying to reunite with family members already here.

Though nearly 1.5 million Soviet Jews have immigrated to Israel or the United States since the mid-1960s, Wenick estimated that at least the same number are still there.

Acknowledging that the emigration no longer seems as dramatic as it did in 1989, when Jews were first allowed to leave freely, Wenick appealed to American Jews to continue their financial and emotional backing.

"It's a moral imperative," he said.